Veteran political writer Jim Callahan is back in town helping OIB cover Tuesday’s Democratic State Senate primary featuring Ed Gomes, Ernie Newton and Andres Ayala. It’s Connecticut’s most-watched state legislative battle. Callahan shares his perspective on why the race is too close to call. Grab a cup of joe and check it out.
It is not easy to tumble into a three-way primary with three viable candidates and no favorite. A lot of mistakes have to be made.
Mistakes were made.
Andres Ayala, Ed Gomes and Ernie Newton have political assets going into the 23rd District state senate primary Tuesday. They have debits.
Theoretically, each could beat each other in a one-on-one race against the other. They all have the same amount of money. They are even there. Apply the positives of one against the negatives of another. Reverse them. A small group of political ops could realistically argue six different results.
All three in one contest? Forget it. There is nothing from prior primary results to predict anything other than a lousy turnout. The known strengths and weaknesses of the three hopefuls are made smaller, victory and defeat shaved closer together.
That means picking up 30 votes here, 20 votes there. If one candidate with the right organization can break out of that trench, they stand a chance of winning. Each candidate has a place to do it.
A fourth name needs to be added: Mayor Bill Finch. His administration provided the chemistry to create this political brew. How this affects his administration is as unknown as the outcome.
Effectively, all three hopefuls are challengers.
Gomes is incumbent in name. There is nothing about his Hartford record that causes him problems. Gomes made a “mistake.” He had a Bridgeport problem he did not manage.
Gomes is an opponent to Mayor Bill Finch. That’s no big deal. He didn’t watch his butt. That’s a no-no. By “mistake” a portion of Gomes’ base on Whiskey Hill was reapportioned into the adjoining senatorial district.
Ayala is the election tool of mayoral retribution. By “mistake” Finch’s people did not deliver an endorsement to Ayala for state senate. Ayala is an incumbent state representative with a noncontroversial reputation. He made his own “mistake” when he trusted the mayor. He is weakened by losing an endorsement he was supposed to get.
Newton made a “mistake” all right, a little act of hubris that sent him to jail the last time he was state senator. He did a stretch in a federal pen for political corruption, admitting to a bribe and diverting campaign funds to personal use. Gomes took his place. Clear of confinement, Newton wants to go back to the senate.
And everyone made the same “mistake” they have made for more than 30 years in Bridgeport politics: They underestimated Ernest E. Newton II.
Ernie has been up. He has been down. And back up. There was an assumption he was really down this time.
Ernie told everyone he was coming. He was ignored. He won the endorsement of the Democratic committee.
Newton is an extrovert who relates warmly to people and people to him. He communicates well to his constituents. Given to goofy statements at times, he takes such criticism in stride in public. And maybe, sometimes, he suggests to people that when he is criticized, those people are making fun of THEM.
Ernie is very good at that kind of bump and run–and getting away with it.
Newton was quoted by reporter Brian Lockhart over at The Connecticut Post the other day that he knows he doesn’t have the support of the mayor like Ayala, or labor like Gomes. He talked about the redemptive power of God to overcome his adversaries.
This pious sentiment bypassed a temporal source of Newton support–East End District Leader Ralph Ford. That, indeed, is the answer to prayer.
The East End is isolated from the rest of Bridgeport by the railroad tracks to the north and Yellow Mill Pond to the west. The district goes up into Mill Hill to the north, but the East End neighborhood is special. It is economically homogenous: All working class, no housing projects. It is densely populated. While largely African American it functions as a neighborhood no matter the group. It is the best Democratic neighborhood vote in Bridgeport.
The East End is Newton’s neighborhood. He has worked it for decades. He has a following. He has the support of Ford and the committeepeople. If you want one neighborhood to build a campaign around in this senate race, you pick the East End. If Ernie blows out the East End, really blows out the East End by pulling out a percentage of the vote 15 or 20 points per precinct higher than the rest of town, he probably wins. More likely the vote percentage is in line with the rest of town, but the potential is there. This is the one neighborhood in Bridgeport really capable of it.
Ayala has represented the East Side on city council and as state representative. Voter registration looks impressive. East Side voter participation, largely Puerto Rican, is not.
Ayala is educated. He is well-spoken. He ruffled no feathers the wrong way in City Hall or the State Capitol. He is young and has been a comer. OK, he trusted the mayor and that’s pretty dumb, but it is only politics-dumb.
Andres is not that rare, magnetic guy. But he could be a guy. And that’s what we usually get in politics and that’s OK. But people have to support him. He has to wind up his neighbors to support him. He’s running a campaign, which from afar, looks like it is being run by The Usual Suspects (lots of big talkers). But maybe it is not.
If he were just matching up his neighborhood against Newton, against anyone, Ayala would be smeared. He is not and he won’t. Ayala has the help of political operatives of the mayor who can churn out a primary vote. Mitch Robles, South End/West End district leader, is supposed to be one of them. It is not as if the Puerto Rican voter turnout over there is swell either, but at least it looks like it is guided by a hand who knows something about politics. Mitch, if weighing in hard, can deliver a vote, particularly in the South End and West End. Not a large vote, but a good machine vote. It is always fun to watch someone try to top it. They always seem to fall 40 or 50 votes short.
Next, Ayala does have the mayor. Every political newspaper reporter in Connecticut, and a few from several other places, would have loved to have heard the conversation between Persons Unknown in Hartford and Bridgeport City Hall that began “Ernie Newton just won the Bridgeport Democratic Party endorsement for state senator.” The Divine may have been invoked, but surely not the way Newton used it to describe his political campaign.
The mayor can help a lot. His team could help cross ethnic and neighborhood boundaries–something the Suspects would have trouble doing. This kind of support doesn’t make a lot of noise either. The people involved know what voters to call. They call them. They vote. Surprise! Hey, Ayala must be a comer. Look at the votes he got from a lot of different places.
The guy with the biggest challenge is Gomes. Part of his voter base was blown up outside his back door.
The Gomes effort had a chance of evaporating into thin air. A lot of people thought Gomes would hang it up after heart surgery last year. He did not. He started slow, however. Everybody was on the ground running by the time he committed himself.
If the thought is out there that at age 76 he is the least serious candidate in this race, he gets blown out. If not–well. The Whiskey Hill–Chopsey Hill area is a good political base by economic attitude: these are all working folk struggling to get by. It is lousy if you are looking for an ethnic edge. It is jumbled up between white, black and brown.
Gomes is a very good politician for building alliances across different groups.
Gomes is well-known for his ferocious fights with political opponents. As long as Gomes doesn’t think of a person as an out-and-out, no-good, lower-than-a-toad, disgusting-as-a-maggot LIAR, Gomes has the political amnesia that is necessary to survive in politics anywhere and Bridgeport politics in particular.
For example, former State Rep. Chris Caruso is supporting Gomes. They fought cats and dogs with each other years ago, but patched things over so well you would hardly know it. There are others like that. One of the qualities of Ed Gomes seems to be the number of people he has fought with who he gets along with.
Former mayoral candidate Mary-Jane Foster is supporting Gomes. This provides a signal to the anti-Finch crowd that they have a home. Her base, however, was Black Rock. That’s not in this district.
Where do candidates go for votes? The geographic bases of the candidates spread across large parts of Bridgeport already. Parts of the Upper East Side are new to the district. The Hollow is in the middle of things, the dead middle of things. Robles’ area of political influence is interesting because it is pinched by the area north of Fairfield Avenue in the West Side and Downtown. Some other players wander around in there. The Downtown voters are still free agents. They are new. There are not many but they seemed to favor Foster last year.
Then there is the new Stratford part of the district, which abuts the East End of Bridgeport. There is no guide to this, only guesses.
One guess is that following the foreign policy of the State Department of the Town of Stratford to oppose anything Bridgeport, officials will support anything that is against Mayor Finch. That hurts Ayala.
Some parts of the South End of Stratford are neighborly with the East End of Bridgeport. That may help Newton. But Gomes is making efforts over there as well.
And let’s not forget the absentee ballots that could decide this race. That’s the Bridgeport way.